NGOs say healthy, natural environment should be a basic human right in light of coronavirus outbreak

Continued deforestation can bring animals in close contact with humans, facilitating the transmission of zoonotic diseases. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The world's attention may have been attuned to the wildlife trade amid the global outbreak of Covid-19, the start of which has been traced to a market selling live animals in China.

But such markets may not be the only driver of the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

Deforestation may be forcing animals out of their homes to where people live, bringing with them viruses that they may be carrying.

This is one reason why a coalition of environmental organisations is pushing for the United Nations (UN) to declare a healthy natural environment as a basic human right.

"We are in the grips of the twin climate and biodiversity crises, which have put over a million species at risk of extinction, and negatively impact human health," said the BirdLife International coalition, which works with local organisations on conservation issues in the more than 100 nations it is active in, including Singapore.

"The current pandemic has its roots in habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade," the group added in a statement on Wednesday (April 22), which marks the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day movement.

The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that wildlife markets, which bring highly stressed animals in close contact with humans, facilitate the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

Continued deforestation in many parts of the world is also likely to do that, said Mr Vinayagan Dharmarajah, regional director for Asia at BirdLife International.

Safeguarding a healthy, natural environment should therefore be a fundamental human right, he added.

Link between environment and people

On Wednesday, BirdLife International chief executive Patricia Zurita sent an open letter to Mr António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

She asked for a new article to be enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to a healthy environment.

"The health of our planet, our ecosystems, our economies, indeed ourselves, cry out now for the General Assembly to recognise our universal right to live in a healthy natural environment - guaranteed by public policies and governed by sustainability and the best scientific and traditional indigenous knowledge," she said in the letter.

Ms Zurita also urged Mr Guterres in the letter to table this discussion on the agenda of the UN General Assembly meeting in September, as part of the Summit on Biodiversity. She said the new article should be declared the UN's 31st declaration on human rights by December 2023.

This would also coincide with the 75th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration, she said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inked in 1948 after the atrocities of World War II, currently has 30 articles which lays out the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, among other things.

Added Ms Zurita in the letter: "We must take the necessary decisive actions to save the ecosystems of the planet from collapse. The effects of global warming, and the loss of biodiversity on people's health and their economies, if left unaddressed, will be irreparable."

Preliminary research shows that the virus causing Covid-19 is believed to have originated in bats.

As the first cases of Covid-19 were reported at a wildlife market in China in December 2019, it has sparked international discussions on how the trade in wild animals and their parts was facilitating the spread of zoonotic diseases.

In February, Beijing banned all wildlife markets in the country.

But environmental groups have pointed out that the wildlife trade is just one symptom of how an ailing earth could impact human health.

Said Mr Vinayagan: "What we hope to do with this letter is to show, especially now during the Covid-19 pandemic, that a healthy environment is not just something that is good to have or for people to aspire towards, but a fundamental human right."

A hurting planet could negatively impact humans, but a healthy environment also has clear benefits on human health, he added, pointing to ecosystem services of forests, like the provision of clean air and water, and how access to nature could help people deal with daily challenges like stress and anxiety.

A Singapore perspective

But it is not just about zoonotic diseases.

Dr Shawn Lum, a botanist, said failure to look after nature and the services can also lead to decreased food security, frayed social resilience, economic and political instability, and grave public health risks.

Dr Lum is the president of the Nature Society (Singapore), or NSS. The organisation is BirdLife International's partner in Singapore, and a signatory to the open letter.

He cited how the rise in piracy off the Somali coast had its origins in overfishing by illegal and unregulated fishing by international fishing vessels in Somali waters that robbed local fishing fleets of their catch and their livelihoods.

"Increased flooding in many countries has also been linked to unsustainable forest management; climate change threatens water supplies, food production, or leads to large-scale forest loss through increased fire frequency, drought, or the spread of frost-intolerant tree pathogens in various countries," said Dr Lum, a senior lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment.

Moreover, with globalisation, the impacts of environmental degradation in one place can now be felt around the world.

Singapore, a small island state whose survival depends on that of all nations, has recognised the importance of a well-maintained and ecologically resilient landscape, said Dr Lum.

"Our evolving views of greenery and nature attest to this - from making Singapore clean and green for aesthetic, physical comfort... we have come to see the intrinsic value of nature to people.

"Without such a viewpoint, one could not imagine the evolution of Singapore as a City in Nature," he said, referring to a masterplan announced by the Government in March to make Singapore greener and more conducive for both humans and its native animals by planting more trees and creating more parks, among other initiatives.

But Dr Lum said the value of nature could be better imbued into all levels of society, from public agencies to schools, community groups, and civil societies, he said.

"The job of maintaining a healthy environment goes beyond having sound policies, careful regulations and stringent enforcement," Dr Lum said.

"It needs all of us to feel, and to put into action, the notion that caring for the environment and nature benefits us, individually and collectively."

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